The Witch: Under its spell

I’ve been dying to see Robert Eggers’ directorial debut The Witch since first hearing murmurs of the “New England Folktale” as it debuted at festivals. And as it drew closer to wide release the nonstop chatter surrounding the film saw my excitement build, as I wondered if it could be this year’s It Follows.

And after finally seeing it on Friday, I can say that it is… and it isn’t. See, it isn’t like normal horror films as it comes to the scares. The Witch is very atmospheric and slowly builds, feeling almost suffocating with its Puritan values, desperate confusion, and the crushing guilt thrown at its characters.

The story follows Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the teenaged daughter of a family banned from their Puritan community after their father’s “proud” acts, leaving them isolated as they set up a new home in front of unfamiliar woods.

One fateful day the family’s youngest son goes missing as Thomasin watches him – she looks away for ONE second while playing peek-a-boo – and the family falls into complete and utter chaos at his loss.

Unfortunately, the loss of their baby boy is not the only plague upon this unlucky family, as strange, inexplicable things begin to occur around their small farm as pressure mounts and they begin to unravel.

Kate Dickie plays matriarch Katherine, who takes the loss of her son the hardest, her blame and fury at her eldest daughter bubbling not so subtly under the surface as the family navigates hurdle after hurdle.

Fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones will recognize the name, as she unforgettably played the Stark children’s Aunt Lysa. Picture that intensity worn on a grieving, Calvinist matriarch and you should already be shivering.

Ralph Ineson plays patriarch William, stubborn in his ways and desperate off of their exile to make the transition work – by any means necessary – so that he can prove to his family that they never needed their old village anyway.

Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson play twins Mercy and Jonas, respectively, who could rival the infamous twins of The Shining with their antics, as Harvey Scrimshaw portrays eldest brother Caleb.

The star is truly 19-year-old Taylor-Joy, who holds your attention as she goes from playfully taunting her annoying younger siblings to fighting back fear as she’s accused of the most unthinkable atrocities.

In an interview with Vulture, Eggers discussed the extensive research he did on Calvinism, the Puritan religion, and witch trials for the film, even sharing that much of the dialogue comes straight from real recorded accounts of witchcraft – of course, which serves only to make the film even more terrifying. Having grown up with a strange interest in the Salem witch trials, this movie couldn’t have been a better realization of my childhood nightmares.

With a feeling my friend and I decided resembled that of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the terror of The Witch – an enveloping, uncomfortable horror – is hard to shake, even as you leave the theater.

It also brings to mind 2014’s indie darling The Babadook, directed by Jennifer Kent, which would sporadically pop into my brain like an earwig for weeks and even months after viewing. I’ve been meaning to re-watch it ever since… and yet, for some inexplicable reason, I have not.

If you’re looking for fast-paced, forgettable thrills like The Forest or one of the Paranormal Activity films (which, to be fair, I also enjoy for different reasons), this is not for you. However, The Witch promises an unshakable cinematic experience, eliciting fear from even the masters of horror themselves. Stephen King even tweeted: “The Witch scared the hell out of me. And it’s a real movie, tense and thought-provoking as well as visceral.”

I’m already finding myself drawn back to the theater for a second viewing. If I’ll make it there, well, time will tell.

* header photo via Bloody Disgusting, c/o Rooks Nest Entertainment

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